What did you want to know about Woody?

scoopWhen I was in college, about the time that the Earth’s crust cooled, there were two kinds of moviegoers at Baylor University, the world’s largest Southern Baptist institution of higher learning. There were the people who went to Woody Allen movies and the people who did not.

My strongest memories surround that silly, at times gleefully pretentious, comedy called Love and Death. It offered his early hit blend of nihilism with solid one-liners, and it was not afraid to go over the edge again and again and again. However, there were times when the theological absurdism seemed to have a hint of content. At times, it seemed like Allen was actually asking serious questions. Then it was time for another silly sight gag.

All of this built up to the sincere seeking in Manhattan and, finally, the intelligent darkness of Crimes and Misdemeanors, when Allen put God on trial and seemed to want a verdict. I was a reporter in Denver at the time and one Orthodox rabbi preached an entire sermon series on that movie. It deserved it.

However, the heart wants what it wants, says Woody, and there was a moral cliff dead ahead. But I still know traditional Christians — you’d be amazed at one or two of the names — who pray each day for Woody Allen’s conversion. There was a time when it seemed like he was a God-haunted man.

Is that still true? I am sorry to say that the recent Washington Post profile by David Segal does not give us many clues. The empty void is there, but it has no name or shape. The new comedy Scoop sounds just as empty. Here is the summary:

The 70-year-old writer and director has been musing about life, sex, work, death and his generally futile search for hope, and frankly, mere depression hardly seems like the right response. Flat-out terror is what is called for here.

Yes, the world according to Woody is so bereft of meaning, so godless and absurd, that the only proper response is to curl up on a sofa and howl for your mommy. Alternatively, you could try the Allen approach, which is to make a feature film every year and try, however briefly, to distract yourself from the darkness.

Now, there are scholars and even theologians who have studied this side of Allen for years. They are not hard to find. Type “Woody Allen” and “theodicy” into Google and you’ll find some interesting things.

But Segal leaves us at the surface, with a few hints of the demons that haunt this aging child of the sexual revolution.

Here is the sad ending (and this is about as deep as things get):

Thanks to Woody Allen, a couple of generations of nebbishy non-jocks were able to get dates. He created the archetype of the nerd who lands the babe. Can he look back on that achievement with some joy?

“No. Because I was always the guy struggling on the outside to get in. I remember being in Chicago and I was invited to the Playboy mansion. This was a long time ago. And this bevy of beautiful girls was there and I couldn’t get to first base with any of them. And this guy I was with said, ‘They only talk to me because I’m with you. I can go to bed with them because I’m with you.’ And I am me! And I’m not in bed with any of them.” …

“For me, being famous didn’t help me that much. It helped a little. Warren Beatty once said to me many years ago, being a star is like being in a whorehouse with a credit card, and I never found that. For me, it was like being in a whorehouse with a credit card that had expired.”

Yes, that is a funny line.

But it is also sad. Actually, it is more than that. That’s the point.

Would it be too much to ask Allen a few serious questions? In the past, he used to ask them on screen.

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In vino veritas?

gibson 01Aristotle and Plato had different conceptions of what a drunk was responsible for. Plato said the drunk was only responsible for getting drunk. Aristotle said he was responsible for getting drunk but also for whatever happened while he was inebriated. (I should note that I may have completely misremembered these views.)

I bet Mel Gibson is wishing that most of the world follows Plato’s line of thinking right now.

Various media outlets report that during a DUI arrest, Mel Gibson acted a fool and made both sexist and anti-Semitic comments to his arresting officers. Here’s the Los Angeles Times:

The deputy said he told Gibson “that if he remained cooperative, I would transport him without handcuffing.”

Instead, he said, Gibson tried to flee back to his car. After he was subdued and handcuffed, the actor told the deputy: “You’re going to regret you ever did this to me.”

Gibson, the report continued, then said he “owned Malibu” and launched a “barrage of anti-Semitic remarks.”

Those remarks included Gibson’s statement that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” the report said. After that, Gibson allegedly asked the deputy: “Are you a Jew?”

The sexist remark was bizarre and uncalled for as well. Anyway, Gibson issued an apology for his drunkenness and the things that he said, admitting he has struggled with alcoholism for years:

I disgraced myself and my family with my behavior and for that I am truly sorry.

Had Gibson not apologized for his behavior, I would probably still be telling my fiance he was gullible to believe this crazy story. But apparently there is truth to the police report. The media coverage has been pretty good, I think.

The (leaked) police report is horrific enough that reporters are able to just quote from it without unnecessary commentary.

It looks like the mainstream media are showing proper restraint in coverage (thus far) since, while Gibson’s comments are fair game for attack, he made them while obviously drunk. Those of us who have ever regretted a comment after an evening of imbibing would probably not wish to have that comment stay with us forever. Timothy Noah at Slate makes a good, if uncharitable, point:

The best case that can be made for Gibson’s belief system now is that he’s anti-Semitic only when he’s three sheets to the wind. And really, now. Are you in the habit of declaring, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” when you get pie-eyed?

The thing is that some folks seem to make such comments while completely sober! Anyway, because Gibson is such a prominent Roman Catholic artist, the questions about his views about Jews are legitimate. His career will be affected, for sure. Or maybe not.

Roman Polanski seems to be able to drug and rape a 13-year-old and keep getting Oscar nods. Of course, if upstanding morality were a precursor for success in the arts, O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Don Simpson, Fatty Arbuckle, Winona Ryder, Phil Spector, Robert Blake, Hugh Grant, George Michael, Errol Flynn, Eddie Murphy, Charlie Sheen, Woody Allen and Pee Wee Herman would likely not be household names. But we tend to be a forgiving people when it comes to Hollywood. Or, at least, we tend to judge the artistic merits of, say, Woody Allen apart from his capacity for marrying and having children with a girl whose mother is, well, the mother of two of his children.

But with Gibson it will be interesting to see if The Passion of the Christ is reconsidered in light of his drunken outburst or whether his upcoming Mayan flick will still make a gazillion dollars.

Anyway, supporting documents can be found at The Washington Post‘s Slate.

It will be interesting to see coverage in coming months, and whether Gibson addresses his anti-Semitic comments in more detail or with more analysis. Please let us know if you see any good or bad coverage.

UPDATE: Just found Rod Dreher’s thoughts at Beliefnet, including:

If this is true about Mel Gibson, then he ought to get to confession and spend a long time repenting for having embraced the evil of anti-Semitism. Failing to do that not only destroys his own image, it brings disgrace upon Catholics and other Christians who have embraced and supported him — especially those of us who defended him when he was under attack before.

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Talking to the middle ground

CollinsBookThe mainstream media are covering intelligent debate over religion and science. And it’s about time.

Former Time religion correspondent Richard Ostling, now with The Associated Press, wrote an excellent news article focusing on the arguments of Francis S. Collins, author of the recently published book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Ostling appropriately recognized that Collins’ faith is a news story unto itself, considering that he is one of the world’s leading biologists and leader of the Human Genome Project.

Much of the media’s reporting on science and religion has focused on controversial school-board decisions and federal funding of forums and research papers. The stories are full of high emotion, distinctive sides and bomb-throwing statements. A story on Collins and his work is not likely to produce that level of controversy, despite his highly intelligent work on combining the controversial areas of faith and science:

He asks scientific skeptics to investigate God with the same open-minded zeal they apply to the natural world, saying that there’s no incompatibility between belief and scientific rigor.

He tells fellow evangelicals that opposition to evolution — whether based in the biblical literalism of creationists or “intelligent design” arguments — undermines the credibility of faith. He finds the first line of thought “fundamentally flawed” and says the second builds upon gaps in evidence that scientists are likely to fill in.

The audience of 200 at [a Williams College conference sponsored by the C.S. Lewis Foundation] gave Collins’s views a respectful reception, in contrast to the frosty reaction he got when he said at a national meeting of Christian physicians that the evidence for evolution is “overwhelming.”

But scientists are probably the tougher audience. According to Nature, the weekly science journal, “many scientists disagree strongly” with Collins-style arguments, and critics think “more talk of religion is the last thing that science needs.”

CollinsLabCollins’ arguments are drawing a good deal of attention, largely because of his book. In a Time review, David Van Biema argues that the book is “enlightening but not always convincing.” (The New York Times reviewed Collins’ book alongside books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Owen Gingerich, Joan Roughgarden, E.O. Wilson and Louis Wolpert.) The pace of Collins’ writing is closer to position statements than arguments that can sustain, Van Biema argues, and the book is most interesting when he criticizes creationists:

His insights on the nature of a God-science overlap, while fresh, are celebratory rather than investigative, budgeting relatively little space to wrestle with instances when the conjunction of the two can induce the philosophical bends (such as faith’s understanding of God’s place outside human time).

The book seems liveliest when Collins turns his guns from atheists on the left to creationists and intelligent designers on the right, urging the abandonment of what he feels are overliteral misreadings of Scripture. “I don’t think God intended Genesis to teach science,” he says, arguing that “the evidence in favor of evolution is utterly compelling.” He has little patience with those who say evolution is just a theory, noting that in his scientific world the word theory “is not intended to convey uncertainty; for that purpose a scientist would use the word hypothesis.” The book is hard on intelligent design, heaping scientific doubt on its key notion of “irreducible complexity” in phenomena like blood clotting, and theological scorn on its ultimate implications (“I.D. portrays the Almighty as a clumsy Creator, having to intervene at regular intervals to fix the inadequacies of His own initial plan … this is a very unsatisfactory image”).

That is not the argument his publisher has chosen to emphasize, or his book’s subtitle would be flipped to read A Believer Presents the Evidence for Science. But it may be the one with the best prospects. Students of the debate note that atheists are more dogmatically opposed to God than Evangelicals are to evolution, if only because aggressive creationism is neither a long-standing evangelical position nor a unanimous one. According to Edward Larson, a Pulitzer-prizewinning historian of the evolution debate at the University of Georgia, American support for it, now near 50%, hovered around 30% as recently as 1960. Today, Larson says, “it’s a dynamic situation, with no unanimity.” Evolution is taught at some Christian colleges.

Collins, according to the Time piece, has regular talks with Prison Fellowship’s Chuck Colson. And Collins is attempting to move him away from his hardline intelligent design stance. I find this quite significant. While it may appear that Collins takes heavy heat from both sides of the debate, scientists opposed to intelligent design clearly respect his opinions, as do those fighting to supplant evolutionary theory with some form of intelligent design theory. With someone of Collins’ stature in the middle, how far apart are the two sides?

The statistics cited in the Ostling article are compelling. If 40 percent of scientists are religious, then why don’t we hear their perspectives more often in news articles? Why has this debate always been so polarized?

Journalists covering the evolution vs. intelligent design/creation wars should place Collins high on their list of sources to call next time a school board attempts to overturn a school’s teachings in the name of the Bible. Or the next time they hear a scientist trash religion for failing to support their work. An intelligent, respected scientist who can speak knowledgably on matters of faith is an invaluable source for understanding what has for years been a yawning gap between two of the most influential groups in American society.

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That secretive Anschutz

Philip Anschutz A 6,800-word Los Angeles Times article by Glenn Bunting on the cigar-chomping, money-making, deal-cutting multibillionaire Philip Anschutz is a piece of journalism for which newspapers live.

Here is how it works. Newspapers want to cover people involved in their community. Usually this involves an interview, a nice photo and a couple of quotes. Controversial subjects are addressed (hopefully), but that’s routine since people typically know about the controversies.

There are those occasions when the person does not want to be interviewed, or involved in the article, but wants to be left alone. But when you are worth $7.2 billion, give to charities and own sports teams, venues, a movie company (think Ray and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), the nation’s largest theatre chain, and an aspiring newspaper chain in three major cities, you should expect to attract some attention. And if you don’t cooperate, a reporter is not likely to write as kindly.

Bunting did a very nice job hooking the story to Anschutz’s activities in Los Angeles to make it a relevant local story for the Times. But it quickly becomes a review of court documents and interviews with people who have had legal spats with Anschutz. It is not an article about religion, but religion definitely slips in there through Anschutz’s spokesman, Jim Monaghan:

Anschutz’s religious beliefs have been scrutinized, especially within the movie business, because he is regarded as a moral conservative who has invested heavily in films that appeal to families and Christians.

Although Anschutz and his wife have worshiped at an Evangelical Presbyterian church in suburban Denver, they no longer do so, according to Monaghan. He said that Anschutz considers himself “spiritual” and now attends services at churches of various denominations. When in Southern California, friends say, he prefers spending occasional Sunday mornings on the golf course.

That’s about as deep as the article goes in trying to understand Anschutz’s faith. This article is about money, power and scandal, but I think a more thorough look at Anschutz’s faith would have been compelling. That’s difficult because Anschutz obviously does not want anyone writing about his life, let alone his faith. For more on Anschutz and his faith, see Ross Douthat’s report for The Atlantic.

Anschutz’s press-averse ways make it difficult to do a balanced report, particularly regarding alleged improprieties with his Qwest telecommunications company and the gutting of the California State Teachers’ Retirement System:

Paula Smith, 56, a Denver mother of two teenagers, said she faces the prospect of working “until the day I die” after losing nearly $240,000 in retirement savings and $220,000 in the value of her Qwest stock.

Smith was hired as a technical writer for Mountain Bell in 1980 and took a buy-out in June 2001 — exactly one year after Qwest acquired the company.

It infuriates her that Anschutz has moved on to make spiritual films laced with moral messages.

“The thing I resent most about Anschutz is that he never steps up to the plate and holds himself accountable,” Smith said. “Funding ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ is not going to exonerate him in the eyes of the Lord.”

Ouch. Knowing that Anschutz is a Christian, I believe he would agree with Smith’s statement based on basic Christian doctrine. Nothing we do on Earth will save us in the eyes of God. But how does one fit that into a newspaper article when the guy isn’t talking?

One of the more interesting segments of the article deals with Mel Gibson and a lawsuit his movie company filed against a Anschutz’s theatre chain, claiming that the company cheated the actor’s distribution company out of payments for The Passion of the Christ:

Testimony in the case disclosed that Anschutz’s theater group charged church groups a $500 “worship price” on top of the normal admission to attend special screenings of “The Passion of the Christ.” Regal routinely levies an administration fee to cover marketing and overhead costs for private screenings.

Gibson became so upset that he ordered his company to issue more than $500,000 in refunds to churches and Christian groups.

“Icon was shocked and disappointed that this additional fee (which was never reported to us) was being charged to faith-based organizations,” Icon wrote in a letter accompanying the refunds.

Worship prices for churches and Christian groups? Why the term “worship” and not the more routine “administrative fee”? That smells fishy.

Finally, as a person fascinated by the life of Howard Hughes, I am not persuaded by the article’s comparing Anschutz to Hughes.

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Johnny Cash was more than “spiritual”

Johnny Cash articleI’m holed up in an airport hotel in London and frantically trying to catch up on email. That’s why I am a bit late to this story.

Regular readers of GetReligion will know that we rarely touch reviews and entertainment criticism. We’re a news site. However, in this case, there is a language issue that just bugged me, big time. Or call it a lack of language issue.

So our text is from a Washington Post piece by J. Freedom du Lac entitled “Johnny Cash’s Failing Voice Sang a Strong Farewell.”

There’s a lot of sadness and death in the new Cash album — American V: A Hundred Highways. That’s to be expected. And the writer also makes it clear that facing one’s mortality can make a great artist think about eternity and big questions.

Recorded over the last months of Cash’s life — from 2002 until his death on Sept. 12, 2003, at the age of 71 — the newest “American” album is essentially the sound of a man preparing to die.

Rather than a depressingly morbid recording, though, it’s an elegiac song cycle on which Cash comes across like a man who is very much at peace with the inevitability that’s hovering over him. He’d just like to share some of his wisdom and say farewell before he goes. God willing, of course, for Cash was nothing if not deeply spiritual in the last half of his life.

“Oh, Lord, help me to walk another mile, just one more mile,” he prays on an album-opening cover of Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me,” over a finger-picked acoustic guitar.

OK, yes the Man in Black was “spiritual.” You could even say that he was a Christian, even a born-again Christian. You could say that, but it seems that many mainstream writers have trouble saying it. Perhaps it is hard to use that word when describing one of the greatest American folk artists of the 20th century. Maybe.

Where is the “C” word in this article?

There is Christian doctrine and imagery in this material. Right? That’s an accurate statement?

There’s all kinds of places one can go to read about the sin, salvation and Johnny Cash, especially to the writings of Steve Beard and Steve Turner.

Still, here is what the man said himself, sharing a pulpit with another spiritual guy, the Rev. Billy Graham:

“I have been a professional entertainer,” said Cash, at a 1989 Graham crusade in his home state of Arkansas. “My personal life and problems have been widely publicized. There have been things said about me that made people ask, ‘Is Johnny Cash really a Christian?’

“Well, I take great comfort in the words of the apostle Paul who said, ‘What I will to do, that I do not practice. But what I hate, that I do.’ And he said, ‘It is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwells within me. But who,’ he asks, ‘will deliver me from this body of death?’ And he answers for himself and for me, ‘Through Jesus Christ the Lord.’”

And all the people said?

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Richards rocks Augsburg’s world

KeithRichardsOK, it’s old news already that Keith Richards plays guitar on the album My Soul Is a Witness. Frank Lockwood of the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote the most playful story about the skeletal rock star’s gospel turn:

The book and compact-disc project is the brainchild of Richards’ sister-in-law, concert vocalist Marsha Hansen.

. . . Hansen, who is married to a Lutheran minister, says she didn’t have to twist her in-law’s arm to get his assistance.

“His understanding of music is very deep — not just rock music,” she said. “He’s particularly intrigued by African-American music, roots music.”

Richards isn’t a Lutheran.

“He probably does not claim a particular affiliation,” Hansen said, “but he loves the music.”

. . . On the recording, Richards sounds like he enjoyed making the music.

“Obviously, you hear Keith chattering in the background. You can hear some of our comments and our laughter. That’s part of the mood of the CD. We had a wonderful time,” Hansen said.

Richards’ wife, Patti Hansen, is the sister of the Rev. Rodney Hansen, Marsha Hansen’s husband and the pastor of Mount Hope Lutheran Church in El Paso, Texas.

I’ve not seen any story this week that picks up on this report by Christopher Standford, published in November 2003 by The Spectator:

Richards married for the first and only time on his 40th birthday in 1983, and it probably saved his life. His bride was the 27-year-old Patti Hansen, a home-town girl from Staten Island, New York, and a devout Lutheran. His in-laws gave a startling interview in which they portrayed Keith as an ‘enthusiastic disciple of Christ’ and that he ‘embraced Christ as a way of life’. Under Patti’s influence, Richards cut back on drugs, attended church from time to time and even started a gentle exercise regime. ‘She’s a wonderful girl; I ain’t letting the bitch go!’ he confirmed in a speech at his wedding reception. Keith may have written ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ back when, but these days much of his life is spent with a woman who attends a weekly Bible study group and who won’t stand for swearing around the house.

Augsburg’s website says My Soul Is a Witness is currently out of stock, which may, in the months to come, be as much of a wry understatement as “Richards isn’t a Lutheran.”

Photo of Keith Richards by Kirill Shabunov, via Flickr.

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We’ll tell you what to think about female ordination

Lutheran ordinationThe latest issue of Newsweek has a story on the ordination of females. Writers Holly Rossi and Lilit Marcus, who I believe are bloggers at the excellent Beliefnet, wrote the story for the mainstream publication. They ask what the election of Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the head of the Episcopal Church means for women seeking a similar path. If they were blogging, the bias of the piece would be just fine. But I’m not sure if they quite have the impartiality necessary for a mainstream news magazine. Let’s see what we think about their tone:

Women make up 61 percent of all Americans who attend religious congregations, but they still struggle for their place in some denominations. A national study led by researchers at Hartford Seminary found that only 12 percent of the clergy in the 15 largest Protestant denominations are women. And some 112 million Americans belong to denominations that don’t ordain women at all, including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Southern Baptists, Mormons, Muslims and Orthodox Jews.

Emphasis mine. Now maybe it’s because I’m Lutheran and we follow the historic Christian practice of ordaining only select men after rigorous education and training, but, um, I don’t think there’s any question how the writers want us to feel. We have the words that direct the reader — but, only, at all!

The story also has a chart on various religious groups’ policies on the ordination of women. But the chart, at least in my synod’s case, is wrong. It says we permit females to preach in the church. Actually, we don’t. We believe that preaching is a function of the Office of Holy Ministry, which is not open to females. Sure, our bureaucratic leader may have expressed a desire to the contrary, but we haven’t gone down that road yet.

Anyway, back to the bias in this Newsweek piece:

But there are indications that times are changing. . . .

But according to Adair Lummis, coauthor of the recent Hartford Seminary study, it might be easier in 20 years for women to earn top positions like Jefferts Schori’s than to increase their presence as senior clergy in many local congregations, where congregants’ attitudes might still favor male pastors. The stained-glass ceiling “has certainly been punctured,” said Lummis. But it’s yet to completely shatter.

I mean, the writers didn’t even really try to be fair to the ancient, orthodox view. They didn’t even lightly explore the biblical or traditional basis for why the vast majority of Christians ordain men. Heck, they didn’t even explore the attitudinal sexism they credit to congregations who desire male priests and pastors. Sigh. The reason why some churches ordain women and others don’t is because there’s a doctrinal division. Maybe mainstream media should look into that.

Photo via Flickr.

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A Mormon for president?

RomneySo the Los Angeles Times has a great idea for a poll, and interviews 1,321 adults about whether religious views would affect their votes in the presidential election. And this is very interesting right now because Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and making a bid for the presidency. So what did the Times find?

Thirty-seven percent of those questioned said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, and 54% said no to the prospect of a Muslim in the White House.

In addition, 21% said they could not vote for an evangelical Christian.

Fifteen percent said they would not vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, and 10% were unwilling to cast ballots favoring a Catholic chief executive.

While this poll result may not be terribly surprising — American voters have expressed their uneasiness about voting for Mormons previously — that 37 percent is a huge number. It would be great to break that number down and learn a bit more about why so many voters are disinclined toward anonymous Mormons. Is it Mormons’ belief in a multiple godhead? Is it their history with polygamy? Is it Orrin Hatch’s music? But the report takes rather a view from 50,000 feet, interviewing political consultants, academics and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Here are the nut graphs dealing with religious beliefs:

A great-grandfather had five wives, but the church now opposes polygamy, as does Romney. The Mormon Church has about 12.5 million members worldwide, according to the church website; a little under half are in the U.S.

Romney is reticent about his religion, citing privacy and contending that candidates should not be judged on their “brand of faith.” But he regularly describes himself as a Christian, saying, “Jesus Christ is my savior.”

Some branches of Christianity do not embrace the Mormon Church. On its website, the Southern Baptist Convention includes Mormonism in a section called “cults, sects and new religious movements.” Kenyn Cureton, a vice president of the Baptist convention, says his church does not regard Mormons as Christians.

“They are not orthodox in their beliefs,” Cureton said. “They have additional books that they add to the Bible, which evangelical Christians believe is God’s word. They believe that there are many, many gods and that you too can become a god in your own world. It sounds good, but unfortunately it is not based on sound teaching.”

Cureton praised Mormons as “very moral, very family-oriented people.” Southern Baptists, he said, “would appreciate that angle. But as far as our beliefs, we would have disagreements.”

Those paragraphs are a bit inadequate. The poll did not specifically measure whether Christian voters would only vote for fellow Christians. However, if the sample size represents the American electorate, which is three-quarters Christian, it’s obvious from the poll that some Christians would vote for a non-Christian Jew but would not vote for a Mormon. So pointing out that most Christians (or “some branches” as our reporter puts it) don’t recognize Mormon beliefs as Christian (or “embrace the Mormon Church,” as she puts it) doesn’t in any way illuminate the poll. It is conceivable, for instance, that some Southern Baptists would believe that Mormons are not Christian and at the same time vote for Romney. There is no inherent conflict there.

Again, what is it about Mormons or voters that yields this poll result? Unfortunately, the survey doesn’t ask and this report fails to answer the question.

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